If there is one island that summons up all the romance of the South Pacific as a tropical paradise, it is ... Tahiti. It's been that way for more than two centuries, since the island's charms (including its free-spirited women) helped spark the mutiny on the Bounty. Today the international airport in Tahiti's capital of Papeete is the gateway to all of French Polynesia.
If you've come here for white-sand beaches and aquamarine lagoons, chances are you've already made plans to continue on to some of Tahiti's neighboring islands, perhaps Moorea (just 7 miles away) or Bora-Bora. Tahiti does have beaches (some, like Papara, are black sand), although its scenic attractions tend to be lush mountains and waterfalls rather than idyllic palm-fringed strands. Hiking and horseback rides in the interior are favorite activities, but there's no shortage of waterplay, from snorkeling to surfing (the cavernous tubes at Teahupoo are considered the most challenging waves on the pro circuit).
Tahitian culture is on full display at the Museum of Tahiti just south of Papeete, but the main draw here is the cosmopolitan capital itself - and the pleasures of dining and shopping. Fine restaurants serve a delicious blend of French and Tahitian cuisines and the large Marché (public market) has dazzling displays of tropical fruits and flowers, as well as Tahitian crafts and endless rainbows of colorful pareus (wraps). Nightlife? Well, let's just say it's the liveliest within thousands of miles.
Even if you're a devoted fan of fine French cuisine, join the locals for lunch at Les Roulottes, a fleet of colorfully painted food vans throughout Papeete that serves everything from Chinese food to pizza to crepes - all at budget prices. But save room for the one dish that you'll most remember when you return home - poisson cru, a sublime salad of raw fish marinated in lime juice, drenched with coconut milk and often served with fresh tomatoes and onions. Call it the Tahitian answer to Mexico's ceviche.
Quinn's, the quintessential South Pacific bar on Papeete's waterfront, passed into history two decades ago, but fear not - the town's evenings are still vibrant. Start with a stroll along the waterfront, where open-air cafés and bars set the stage for a night of dancing (tango to disco) at one of the island's many clubs. Feeling lucky? You can choose among a trio of hotel casinos, but for a taste of old Tahiti, stop in a locals bar downtown; it will be crowded and smoky, but you'll have a chance to get acquainted with Hinano, the fine local beer.
OK, you've fallen in love with ... black pearls. The best way to learn about these pearls produced only in French Polynesia, is to visit the Robert Wan Pearl Museum on Rue Jeanne d' Arc in Papeete, where exhibits cover the history and art of the pearl - and include beautiful specimens from a first-class collector. Jewelers in Papeete can help you choose between a reasonably priced souvenir or a pricey, gem-quality design... but what to go with a pearl necklace? A colorful pareu wrap. Dab on some fragrant, plumeria-laced monoi oil (widely available on the island), and let the pareu and pearls work their own Polynesian magic.